The “10 Sen” Moment

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A Typical Semesra Morning

“Good morning, Sir!” Wan shouts enthusiastically at me from across the kantin.

Selamat pagi, abang!” I reply. I walk to the kuih table and unabashedly pick up a pair of donuts for myself.

“Drink, drink?” he asks, though by now he should know the answer.

Teh tarik, please.”

“Okay.”

As I wait for my beverage, I reflect on my first month in my placement. The adrenaline and novelty of the experience is now wearing off, replaced by responsibility and routine. The pace of life in Malaysia seems much slower than that in the United States, so much so that I sometimes feel time is standing still entirely. This sensation brings occasional frustration as well as frequent relief.

Wan pulls out his calculator, his cash register of sorts. I know the bill already: two donuts are RM0.8 and teh tarik is RM1.3, so the total is RM2.1, but he rounds down to RM2. Whether this 10 sen discount is for expediency’s sake or another perk of being a school VIP, I cannot be sure.

Sipping my tea (and giving Wan a thumbs up so he knows it is sedap), I ponder how my anxiety is affecting my adaptation to life in this culture. In some ways, it makes me feel ineffective just as it did in college; I frequently find myself concerned that I am somehow failing to fulfill my role here to my fullest potential. Example: virtually every day, I take a two-hour nap upon getting home from school. While that is time I could spend doing something more productive – cleaning the lizard poop out of my toaster oven, for example – I have been exerting so much energy during the time I am at school, both mentally and physically, that to trudge through the afternoon would be a masochistic endeavor. On top of that, while I am still surviving with minimal use of my air-con (for financial reasons), the heat is a draining and demotivating cherry on top of the equatorial hot sludge sundae.

Still, in spite of my anxiety, I generally find myself more confident and comfortable than I expected. I have come to realize that the Malaysians around me cannot differentiate which aspects of my personality are American in nature and which are just Nate-isms (though, realistically, those have more overlap than I realize). Consequently, many of the quirks which make me feel socially inept back home are instead forgiven here as “silly American” behaviors. In spite of the parts of my identity that I must hold back for fear of offending my community (i.e. my political beliefs), I in some ways feel more comfortable in my own skin as a foreigner here than I do in my own homeland. [This is a simplified summary of a much more complex set of personal observations which require further reflection, but I felt compelled to share as it is currently on my mind.]

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Dusk in the Kampung Gajah Town Centre

Adjusting to life abroad is made much easier by active self-care. On the last day of orientation, our coordinators advised us to find the western comforts we most appreciate and hang onto them as best we can when times get tough here. I have taken this to heart to great success. I have made it a point to talk to my mom once a week so we can stay updated on each others’ lives. I have tried to watch at least one Daily Show / Last Week Tonight / similar news pundit-type clip every day for a balance of staying informed and being entertained. I usually watch a movie or TV show when I get in bed each night, as they satiate my hunger for American culture. Speaking of hunger: Clay and I even found a milkshake stand in the center of our town which we have already visited three times.

At the same time, we have started to learn how to find comforts within the Malaysian culture as well. There is a drink stall in our town that sells cendol for RM1, and another stand close by that makes a delicious burger wrapped in a fried egg; this has become a consistent dinner option when I am too tired to cook. I look forward to wearing my batik shirt from Penang every Thursday, and I hope to buy a few more when I can find them at a reasonable price. I get pleasure from brushing up on my Malay using the “MemRise” app Clay recommended. And, of course, I look forward to seeing Wan’s smiling face (and those of my students too) first thing each morning.

At this point, I have developed a strong rapport with my students. One day, I showed a few of my Form 5 boys a card trick; now, I cannot walk ten feet without a random student asking me to do magic for them. The students eagerly look forward to Fridays as they know that is the day I will bring my guitar to school (“setiap Jumaat, sahaja Jumaat,” I tell them). The girls enjoy my dancing abilities and are notably fascinated with my Michael Jackson impersonation, much to my dismay. (“Zombie, Sir! Zombie!” is their way of asking me to perform a snippet of the Thriller dance.) The older boys love to teach me Malay slang, though I often repeat their phrases hesitantly until I can confirm they are appropriate for school. In class, I introduced a “High-5” technique to assess understanding; after I give instructions in English, students hold up between one and five fingers to show how much they understood. If I see low numbers, I repeat my instructions slower and often throw in some Malay or charades.

There is also a wealth of humor in the daily goings-on at Semesra. As comfortable as I am getting, there is at least one moment every day that totally surprises me and often knocks me on my butt with laughter. One day, Ros revealed to me that she is an Abba-holic and we proceeded to have a karaoke session to “Dancing Queen” in the CUBE. Another time, my Form 1 students got distracted by the sounds of the “Chicken Dance” song coming from the PPKI room, leading to an impromptu dance party. Most comically, I am told almost every day that I remind my students of Mr. Bean, which I find especially perplexing given how much I talk. (In fairness, I have also been compared to Benedict Cumberbatch and Sam Claflin, so I’ll take it with a grain of salt.)

Things outside of school have been going well. Our homestay continues to entertain us. Yesterday, we watched a monkey jump on the awning of our landlord’s patio and cause it to cave in. Another time, a man (Mr. Din) staying in an adjacent apartment asked to borrow my guitar, which led to a cool experience of watching this Malay man jam out Eric Clapton-style on my cheapo instrument. Clay and I have been playing a bunch of board games lately; I narrowly beat him in a three-day-long battle of Twilight Struggle. Additionally, he has introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons. I am a level 1 half-elf druid named Febreze, and no, I do not care that you are judging me for it.

Still, we try to get out of the house at least a few nights a week – playing frisbee at his school, getting dinner with students or visiting the nearby night markets. At the Changkat Lada one this Tuesday, we tried a blue beverage that was a dead-ringer for Lucky Charms marshmallow milk. In spite of any small differences between us, we are supporting each other as best we can. I even went to help out at his school’s Sports Day last week, and was rewarded with free satay, a Changkat Lada mug, the chance to try javelin throwing and archery, and a whole lot of fun. (Side note: at the event, 12 students passed out from the heat… and that was only during the opening ceremonies!)

Naturally, we’ve taken some trips these past couple weeks. Last weekend, we trekked to a waterfall in Gopeng with Grace, Esme, Sophia and a local American family they met. I jumped off a nine-foot boulder into the water and prayed not to die. The weekend before, we spent a night in Ipoh to celebrate Sarah N. and Shaina’s birthdays. Highlights included kicking Clay and Esme’s butts at the “Soft Darts Club”, trying white coffee, buying some mini cacti for my house on Concubine Lane and getting my first Malaysian parking ticket (that I promptly paid off at the Malaysian DMV – which, as it turns out, looks exactly like the U.S. DMV). That evening, we had a salon at a Chinese tea house to discuss the current political climate of the U.S.A. and what we can do from our positions here to advocate and speak up.

We also drove to Ipoh for Thaipusam, a Hindu festival in which men make wishes for the year ahead and, if they come true, parade to the local temple with colorful religious floats connected to their bodies by metal piercings. While there, I tried an Indian honey-flavored fried dough dessert and a traditional beverage that looked like milk but tasted like pickle juice. We got in a discussion with an older gentleman who regaled us with his thoughts on the interplay of religions in Malaysia, much to our discomfort. While the experiences I had that day were somewhat out of my comfort zone, they were certainly valuable and I will remember them for many years to come. We will be back in Ipoh again tomorrow night for our state-wide English camp, so stay tuned on how that turns out.

Of course, amidst all of these adventures, there are still many struggles. My washing machine broke two weeks ago, so now I have to do my laundry in Clay’s room (which he has been super gracious about… what a guy!) I have been kept awake a few nights by the sound of the monsoon rains banging against my metal roof. My WiFi is still spotty and seems to always cut out at the worst possible times. I am running out of toilet paper and milk faster than I can buy it. Every time I set out to clean my room, it somehow ends up messier than before. And these obstacles may sound small and petty – indeed, they objectively are – but in the context of the Malaysian heat, the exhaustion of teaching and the mental taxation of being so far away from home, these molehills quickly grow.

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And sometimes the molehills are just moseying cows…

Thus, there are mornings when I find myself feeling gross, groggy and even a little grumpy – mornings which make me question whether I will be able to survive eight more months here with my sanity in tact. But as I walk down the school corridor toward the kantin, I hear a voice call out, “Good morning, Sir!”

Selamat pagi, kawan.”

“Drink, drink?”

And in spite of its redundancy, there is something intangibly special about this “10 sen” moment. I find comfort in its familiarity, inspiration in its courtesy. For an instant, I could swear the clock has stopped ticking.

As Wan pulls out the calculator, I notice myself smiling; my hand waits in my pocket, already clutching RM2.

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Settling in for the long haul,

Nate

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